This snapshot is the only memento I have of a girl I was in love with when I was in my late teens. She is the smiling blond near the center of the photograph. When I say I was in love with her, I am speaking from later knowledge. At the time – the late 1940s – girls in love with other girls didn’t recognize what was staring them in the face. They – we – thought you could be in love only with boys. Lesbianism was something you only heard about. There was a book called The Well of Loneliness, a forbidden, rather boring text, from which we formed the idea of lesbians as unhappy jodhpur-wearing daughters of fathers who had wanted sons.
Pat Patrick, as the blond was called, was small and compactly built, a Jean Arthur type, who radiated a kind of self-containment and forthrightness that contrasted sharply with the wobbly unsureness of the rest of us. The group picture was of the participants in a six-week-long summer program for American and foreign college students run by an organization called the Lisle Fellowship, whose purpose was to make the world a better place through vapid discussions in the evening and volunteer work during the day. How could it not succeed? But, of course, our main interest was in each other, in forming romantic attachments that took hold for a week or so and then petered out. My (unacknowledged) crush on Pat lasted the entire six weeks. I loved the way she strode about the place, as if she were on her way to a meeting of the Council of Landowners. I loved the way she swore. ‘Christ on a crutch!’ ‘Goodness, gracious, goodness, Agnes!’ The word ‘uninhibited’ was in vogue at the time, and I used it in thinking about Pat, envying as well as admiring her for her freedom from the dull conventions by which I was bound. She was nice to me. I was younger than everyone else – I wasn’t in college yet. My mother had learned of the program from one of her friends in the good-doing world, and no one at Lisle seemed to have noticed anything untoward on the application she sent in. I remember Pat counseling me about the boy, Jack, with whom I was going. She didn’t like him and I began to see what she meant. I switched to a nicer boy from South America, named Gilberto. Pat was going with someone from France whose name I don’t remember, who seemed older and was just possibly worthy of her.
After the summer I saw Pat one more time. In my memory of the meeting she is standing on the sidewalk on Fifth Avenue across the street from the Plaza Hotel. There is to be a reunion in the Village with some of the Lisle people. It is early evening in late summer. Pat is wearing an elegant dress of dark blue taffeta with a gathered skirt and cinched waist and suede pumps. Her hair is arranged in a loose chignon at the back of her neck. I had never seen her looking like this before. During the summer she wore shorts and cotton shirts and a ponytail. She looked like everyone else. Now she looks like a socialite, a daughter of wealth and privilege. She is not at ease. She tells me that she has to go to some event with her aunt, with whom she’s staying at the Plaza, and won’t be able to go down to the Village.
What interests me now in thinking about this last glimpse of Pat is my lack of surprise at her transformation. Of course she would be wearing that dress and those pumps and have an aunt who was staying at the Plaza. The shock was of recognition. We know so much that we don’t know we know about each other. We always know each other’s class. On some level I had always known Pat was rich and upper-class. Where I belonged in the money and class divide was equally clear to me.
Our family was ordinary mid-century professional middle-class, neither rich nor poor, with no social pretensions. In Prague my parents had been somewhat better off financially and had ties to an advanced intellectual community. A few of their fellow refugees went back to Czechoslovakia at the end of the war to try to resume their old lives. My parents knew almost from the start that they would stay here. This country is so nonchalantly seductive! There is no escaping its wiles. My father was scarcely off the boat when he became a Dodgers fan.
We lived according to our means, on my parents’ salaries, with an easy modesty. The Czech word skromnost means ‘modesty’, but it also carries a mild sense of forelock-tugging humbleness, of knowing one’s place.1 My father worked as a physician and then as a psychiatrist at the Veterans Administration, and my mother worked as an announcer at the Voice of America. We never borrowed money. The idea of ‘having money’, like rich people did, was alien to us. There was a girl in my class in junior high school named Astrid who lived on Park Avenue and was considered weird because of it. Everyone else lived east of Third Avenue, in what was then working-class Yorkville.
By the same token, I knew that we were a class above the people who lived in the tenements – we lived in a six-story apartment building built just before the war – though this knowledge came to me only gradually. In the earliest years of my childhood in Yorkville, I had a different idea of the divide between us and the other families in the neighborhood: I thought we were inferior. I envied the girls their brightly colored Sunday clothes and their white communion dresses. I was ashamed of my mother when she came to school assemblies in the clothes she had worn as a professional woman in Prague, which I thought dowdy and poor compared with the shiny flower-print dresses of the other mothers. During this period of social misprision, I made a trade with a girl from across the street of a beautifully illustrated book of fairy tales for a comic book. When I proudly showed my parents the comic book, they humiliatingly made me go to the girl across the street and get the fairy-tale book back. The parallel between my trade and the one they had made of Old World culture for New World vitality was not apparent to them and only now comes into view.
But I want to talk more about skromnost, about my family’s practice of it and my nostalgia for it. Today we recycle the things we don’t want. During my childhood and adolescence and young adulthood there wasn’t much we didn’t want. It was a culture of conservation. And one of being satisfied with what came our way. The way we live now would have seemed unimaginably posh to middle-class people in the days of millionaires rather than billionaires. Campbell’s soup was not associated with Andy Warhol. We ate it. Casseroles of noodles and Campbell’s cream-of-mushroom soup were a kind of national dish to serve to company. Does anyone say ‘casserole’ anymore? Rich people ate the cream-of-mushroom dishes along with the rest of us; I’ve heard of rich old people whose servants still know how to make them. Today, the non-poor eat exquisite food as a matter of course, and four-year-old girls are taken for pedicures. This will be hard for young people today to believe, but no one went for pedicures when I was young. Sometimes for a very special occasion (the end of the world) one had a manicure. It was administered at the hairdresser’s while you were under the dryer.
I think of the skromný vacations we went on with our parents, in the time between the end of camp and the beginning of school. For several years, we stayed at the Andrews farm, in Pownal, Vermont, which took guests during the summer months, and served wonderful food: corn on the cob, cucumbers and green beans and tomatoes and potatoes from the garden, pork chops and steaks and chicken cutlets from their own or neighbors’ animals – what we now call ‘artisanal’ food. We understood its rare deliciousness. It made up for the monotony of the place. Except for one activity, croquet, I don’t know what we did all day. There was a girl named Gwendolyn who cheated at the game: she was always moving her ball or yours. In the evenings we and the four or five other families or couples staying at the farm gathered in the parlor. We played word games or Gwendolyn played the piano. She was pretty in a blond, sugary way. She played well. Marie and I hated her.
There were other summers when my mother couldn’t get away from work and my father took us to New Hampshire, to stay in a roadside cabin, one of about eight, owned by a Mr Hitchcock. Again, I don’t remember much about what we did – I think we toured New Hampshire places of interest like the Flume Gorge and Mt Washington, perhaps we swam in a nearby lake – but I remember the restaurant in a clapboard house across the road from our cabin, a little downhill, that served carefully prepared New England food and gave a special shine to the vacations. We ate breakfast and dinner there and felt fortunate. Here and there you still see collections of cabins on New England roads – I have passed one called Hubby’s Cabins, near Great Barrington, Massachusetts – and I think of Mr Hitchcock and those blurred innocent vacations with my father.
She had an enormous amount of what used to be called ‘European charm’. My sister and I, each in our way, acquired some of it from her. What is it? From the point of view of feminism, it seems kind of awful, not ‘enabling’ or enabling in the wrong way, the way the first wife in a harem might establish her firstness. By being charming you are lowering yourself. You are asking for something. I admire the deadpan young women of today who want nothing from you. I like their toughness and self containment. Of course, beneath the surface, they are as pathetic as everyone else. But the pose has something to be said for it. My mother wasn’t charming in a fluttering feminine way. She was sturdily built and had an affect of enthusiasm and vitality. But she belonged to her time, and this was a time when women worshipped men without ever quite coming out and saying so. It has taken me a long time to understand the implications of her legacy of charm.
My mother was not a ‘good enough mother’, as the psychoanalyst Donald Winnicott put it. She was a good mother. She was warm and loving and unselfish. I remember the incongruously delicious food she made for us when we were ill. One associates gruel and weak tea with illness. My mother made us roast squab and, unbelievably, profiteroles. This may be because she knew we were only malingering; we were allowed to call ourselves ill when the mercury thermometer reached what we called the křížek – the line marking the border between normal and elevated temperatures. The border was good enough. When we reached it, we could lie back on our pillows as the phone call to school was made.
My mother had a large nature, but I realize that my idea of it is vague and unformed. As I try to portray her I come up against what must be a strong resistance to doing so. Let me go back to the charm. Charmers want to know about you, they ask questions, they are so interested. You are flattered and warmed. Sometimes you grow flushed with the pleasure of the attention. I have seen people grow flushed while talking to me. Did I become a journalist because of knowing how to imitate my mother? When I ask someone a question – either in life or in work – I often don’t listen to the answer. I am not really interested. 2
I don’t think my mother was interested in what people told her, either. She asked her questions. But her mind was elsewhere. This is what I can’t get hold of. What was she interested in? She was a reader. It was always an article of faith that she, and not my father, was the one who knew what great literature was, that she could always recognize the real thing, that hers was a kind of perfect pitch, while his taste was more commonplace, though he was the literary one, the one who wrote.
Her exuberance and vivacity and warmth were a kind of front for an inner deadness of spirit. She would put herself down. She would say she didn’t do anything properly. It’s šmejd, rubbish, she would say about what she did.
I realized later in life that she always had something the matter with her. We all have something the matter with us – go to any drugstore and you’ll see that – but she seemed to suffer more than most from the common minor ailments: muscle pain, indigestion, constipation, headache. At some point during my childhood there was talk about depression and about visits to a Dr Levine, a colleague of my father’s. I have a letter from my father written when I was in college, entreating me to write to her more frequently, and saying that she was depressed and felt wounded by my carelessness and callousness. I also have a letter from her written just after putting me on the train for college, telling me how much she loved and admired me.
Sept. 15, 51
I started to write you a letter just after I returned from the station – it was a tearful letter and disgustingly sentimental. Now, I came back to my senses and I realize how good it is for you to be in a new atmosphere of such a great university. Of course I miss you and somehow I feel that I didn’t tell you all the things I wanted. Not advices – I am so sure of you – I am very much handicapped by my poor English – but believe me I have not words even in Czech – to tell you how much I love you and how proud I am of you. You probably have realized that my relationship to you was not entirely the one of a mother towards the daughter, but many times just the other way. I have found in you all the traits of both my parents which I admired and loved so much.
I hope you had a good start and I wish you all the luck. Yesterday – Sunday – we were at the Traubs’ cottage – it was a perfect day – lovely swimming and delicious steak dinner. Today back to work and this time I sort of looked forward to it.
So far I found only the brush you forgot and the nylon pants. I also bought a shoe bag for you and I am going to send it very soon.
I expect a letter from you tomorrow – but I want you to know that I will be quite patient and won’t worry if your letters won’t be on the dot. I also would like if you would write about the things you don’t like just as about those you like – because this way we will stay sort of closer, don’t you think so?
Drahoušku, moc Tě miluji a stále na tebe myslím.
Líbam Tě tvá máma.
[Darling, I love you very much and think about you all the time. Your mother kisses you.]
‘I expect a letter from you tomorrow.’ Did it come? Did I write it? Here is what my father wrote in a letter a year and a half later:
Darling, although we love one another in our family as much and as deeply as in any other family/ we may consider our family as an emotional and intellectual success/, you know that Joan needs more overt display of genuine emotions and more affectionate climate than we all other together. We all probably are in our innermost core the same or almost the same but we all sort of cover it by a shell of detachment and occasionally cynicism or something like that. Mother thrives only in this cornucopia of abundant warm emotions and we should give her as much of it as we can, since, if she does not get it, she is blaming herself and turning it against herself/ and particularly now, in her age, she has more tendency to this self-blame and self-depreciation and ensuing depression.
Darling, Joan is a wonderful person, since these qualities seem to be rare in this century. I am aware that I myself did not always satisfy these needs though I tried my best. I am sure we will all need her one day more than she needs us and we have to do everything to keep her in good spirits and happy. Please, darling, and you are a wonderful girl, too/, write Joan few lines/ non-Gargoylian, with the punch line: love, affection, appreciation, all those feelings you harbor a-plenty but do not express/. Darling, give it a thought. Maybe I am expressing my self in somewhat clumsy way but I am sure you will understand. There are times in our life when we need more emotional support and Joan is just now in such a period of life. Darling, Joan shouldnot know that I wrote you this letter. I am sure you will find your way and form to dispel the clouds and doubts.
Non-Gargoylian. The Gargoyle was the college humor magazine I worked on, and in whose ‘humorous’ style my letters home were couched. My parents kept my letters and when I read them now I am ashamed and mortified. My mother wanted love and appreciation and I gave her stupid jokes. How could I have been so cruel and callow?
But there may have been another pressure – the pressure to be funny – that was working on me and dictating my awful smart-ass letters. Our family was proud of the way we horsed around and had fun. The ‘shell of detachment and cynicism’ was a style we all liked and cultivated. My father was the dégagé cynic-in-chief, the most brilliantly humorous of us all, but my mother could be funny herself, perhaps more so in Czech than in English, but she was hardly the simple, warm, affection-starved woman he depicts in his letter. She participated in the family mockery of the Mr Collinses and Madame Verdurins who came our way. She didn’t intercede for them; her desire for a ‘cornucopia of warm emotions’ didn’t extend that far. I had gotten mixed signals, and I seem to have resolved the conflict by ignoring the demands it would have been harder to satisfy. The fear of speaking from the heart is deep-seated. We form the habit of defending ourselves against rejection early on. But, God, what a jerk I was. I can only blush with shame at those idiotic letters to my lovely mother. What would it have cost me to tell her that I loved her?
But then I come across a letter that makes me side with myself against my mother:
Last night she [my sister, then in high school] went square dancing and came home at 1:30. I was absolutely desperate – I don’t think I was so scared in all my life. I did not know where she was or with whom – so I was just sitting and waiting and praying and crying. Then she came and was very upset to see me so upset. She simply forgot the time. I am still half dead today. Well, c’est la vie!
La vie with Mother’s hysterical iron grip over her children’s comings and goings wasn’t easy. I remember having to leave parties to meet the curfew and sometimes finding her on the street in front of our building with a coat thrown over her nightgown. New York was fairly safe then – the crime period came later – and we traveled by bus and subway. We didn’t drive. What was there to fear? I remember having to leave a party in the Bronx just when a boy I was interested in was beginning to seem interested in me. Flouting my mother’s rule was out of the question. I never saw the boy again.
Many years later I won an award from a journalism school for a magazine piece about a family therapist, and I invited my father to the award ceremony. When my name was called, I got up and said thank you and sat down again. I didn’t make the type of speech the other award winners had made. I thought those speeches were stupid and sentimental. I felt above them. I didn’t realize how stupid and insufferable I myself was, how empty and embarrassing my gesture of purity was. My father said then and a few times afterwards that I should have made a speech like the others. One day he said this one time too many and I exploded at him. We were sitting around the table, at lunch. My explosion was followed instantly by an explosion from my mother. ‘HOW DARE YOU SPEAK THAT WAY TO YOUR FATHER!!!’ A flash of insight came to me. I saw my mother’s all-powerful place in the family. The family therapist had spoken of a switchboard that powerful mothers manned. Everything that happened in the family had to go through them. Here was my mother enacting the metaphor. Yes, all happy families are alike in the pain their members helplessly inflict upon one another, as if under orders from a perverse higher authority.
More on Mother
I have been reading – not happily – letters that my mother wrote to me in the 1950s. I am pained by the ‘Why haven’t you written?’ motif that runs through so many of them. I am pained both for her and for myself. It must have been bitter for me to be constantly reproached for my exercise of the prerogative of youth to be careless and selfish. But what I see now that I didn’t see then is that her need for letters from me was a kind of sickness, like the sickness of being in love, and since I was in love all the time myself, I might have seen her as a fellow-sufferer rather than as an adversary whose thrusts I must parry to protect my wobbly independence.
My mother was temperamental. She was volatile, she could fly off the handle. We – my sister and I – knew this about her and didn’t take it seriously; she was never unkind to us. She certainly never abused us. She just allowed herself her histrionics. One of the reproachful letters – ‘It’s two weeks since you wrote – thank god we have the Daily and found a story written by you. I don’t see why you could not find 2 minutes to write home’ – ends with the outburst, ‘I am too mad to write more.’ In another letter – for once not on the why-don’t-you-write theme – she tells of a lucrative job offer at Radio Free Europe she turned down and lashes out: ‘Everybody thinks I am an idiot – but I simply don’t feel like working and nobody can force me.’
I remember a scene in which she packed a suitcase and said she was leaving. She had had enough. In the scene, Marie and I and my father are watching her pack the suitcase. She seemed to mean it, but I don’t remember any feeling of distress. I think we all knew that this was farce of some kind. Of course she didn’t leave.
I think the issue was my grandmother, my father’s mother, who lived with us. Something about the threads and pins from her sewing that were always all over the floor. My grandmother was a kindly, well-meaning woman who was a great trial to my mother. It is rare for wives to happily welcome their mothers-in-law into their households, but this mother-in-law must have been particularly hard to live with precisely because of her harmlessness and kindliness – and depression. In a document titled ‘My Confession’, Babička, as we called my grandmother, writes of her miserable childhood as the unloved thirteenth child of parents who sent her to live with a married sister, who mistreated her. The grim childhood ended with a loveless arranged marriage that ended in divorce when my father was an infant. Babička ‘Confession’ puts me in mind of Chekhov’s stories about brutal peasant life and of his spare recollections of his own childhood as the son of a serf who caused him to wonder every day whether he would be beaten. Somewhere Chekhov wrote about having to squeeze the serf out of himself. I have wondered how my father squeezed the serf out of himself, my witty, erudite, kind, unselfish, gentle father. The vestiges of his peasant childhood – his personal parsimony (he was generous toward others), some kind of lack of Hapsburg polish that annoyed my mother – were insignificant, though my sister and I may have sided with my mother in the airs she put on. We always knew he came from a village and she from a Prague apartment with art nouveau wallpaper.
I don’t want to exaggerate my mother’s attachment to refinement. She had an earthiness of her own that her temperament and temper expressed, and she was never cruel to my grandmother. She just got fed up from time to time. We all felt guilty about my grandmother. I learned only later that she was clinically depressed and received shock treatments, and that they helped. I don’t know where she received the treatments. It could not have been in my father’s office at our apartment, where – yes, this is true – my father (assisted by my mother) gave shock treatments to some of his patients. This was actually allowed in the 1940s.
1 Skromnost (Czech): modesty, humility, unpretentiousness.
2 The use of a tape recorder during interviews permits me to counteract this obvious disqualification for my job. But, thinking about it further, I wonder whether a lot more of us, perhaps most of us, only pretend to be interested in the answers to the questions we ask, and whether the word ‘empathy’ refers to a performance rather than to a feeling.
Feature photograph © Constantine Christofides
Janet Malcolm at the University of Michigan in the 1950s